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Franken touts viability of renewable energy for rural Minnesota

WILLMAR - Renewable energy could be the driving force behind economic growth in rural Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Al Franken said Wednesday.

Franken toured some local energy projects in Willmar after spending a day and a half in Morris on a similar tour. He was recently appointed to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"I've always felt this part of Minnesota can be an economic engine that renewable energy is at the center of," Franken said during a visit to the Tribune offices Wednesday afternoon.

In Willmar, he met with city and Kandiyohi County officials and learned more about renewable energy projects in the area, including several geothermal projects and the city's wind turbines.

In Morris, Franken toured renewable energy projects at the University of Minnesota-Morris, the West Central Research and Outreach Center and the Agricultural Research Service Soils Lab in Morris on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. He also participated Wednesday morning in a two-hour Energy Roundtable Forum at UMM.

Franken said he has worked to maintain tax credits for ethanol and biodiesel producers, something he feels will support jobs in rural Minnesota.

In President Obama's budget, energy and education were the only areas that weren't cut, he said.

Rather, Obama increased funding for renewable and clean energy sources and proposed more support for nuclear energy and less for fossil fuels.

It's also important to put resources into efficiency, Franken said, adding, "Obviously the cheapest barrel of oil is the barrel of oil you don't buy."

Investing in energy efficiency could help put people in the building trades to work, he said, as workers could retrofit homes, public buildings and schools to save energy.

Franken is also a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is in the process of rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known for the past nine years as No Child Left Behind.

"It had laudatory goals," he said, but the law was executed poorly and did not work for rural schools.

"It doesn't make sense with a rural school to talk about firing a principal and half the teachers in a school," he said. That's one of the current penalties for schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for an extended period of time.

Franken co-authored a bill with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to recruit and train principals for high-needs schools. A person in the program would be mentored for a year with a principal who had already turned around a struggling school.

"One of the things I think is a major change that we're going to make is measuring growth," Franken said. "What we need are tests that are used to help teachers teach."

Rather than one high-stakes test given in the spring, he said, he'd like to see a series of lower-stakes tests given throughout a school year. They would be similar to the Northwest Evaluation Association testing many school districts already do.

The change in testing would allow ongoing evaluation of how students are performing and tell teachers what sort of help their students need, according to Franken.

"I think that's what parents thought No Child Left Behind was going to be," he said. "It didn't turn out that way at all, it turned out a very boneheaded way."

When he travels around the state, he asks employers what they want from employees, he said, and most ask for the same things: Someone who is creative, able to do critical thinking and able to work in a team. "None of that is really measured by NCLB tests."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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